‘Almost Famous’ on Broadway is a rock ‘n’ roll nightmare
The Daily Beast
November 3, 2022
“Almost Famous” is a wince-inducing Broadway musical—a toothless, sanitized, and humorless version of the supposedly dark and dangerous era of rock ‘n’ roll it claims to be about.
Rarely has rock ‘n’ roll looked and sounded as boring and tedious as it does in the strange Broadway mess that is Almost Famous (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, booking to April 9, 2023). This is odd, as the musical is based on the popular Oscar-winning film, written and directed by Cameron Crowe, who also wrote the book and lyrics for the stage show (music and other lyrics by Tom Kitt).
Semi-autobiographical, it features teenage journalist William Miller (Casey Likes) as he wheedles his way, by faking being much older on the phone, into following a dysfunctional rock band called Stillwater to make his writing debut in Rolling Stone in 1973. The result, on stage, is wince-inducing—a leaping, sing-songy, wishy-washy, toothless, sanitized, and humorless version of what that era of rock ‘n’ roll was.
In Almost Famous’ mind, as its blurb promises, “William is thrust into the rock-and-roll circus, where his love of music, his longing for friendship, and his integrity as a writer collide. Almost Famous is a spirited tale of fandom, family, and the unforgettable characters you’ll meet along the way.”
The musical is none of those things. At the end, someone says how much fun it has all been. Really, it hasn’t. William has had a consistently dull, dreary time on the road with Stillwater. We do not see him taking or enjoying drugs. We do not see him enjoying loads of sex. We do not see him doing much journalism. We see these acts being implied, but just when things might get interesting, the lights go out, just as our hero looks–well—overwhelmed or plain confused. The musical drifts listlessly from scene to scene, free of any narrative momentum.
However, it also represents a kind of theatrical first, where you are rooting for the character on stage who is supposed to be the square, the joy- and wildness-killer, William’s mom Elaine (Anika Larsen). Larsen has the show’s best songs and best lines, and the only moment worth cheering is when she tells Stillwater’s lead singer Russell Hammond (Chris Wood) to not only return her son home, but also not to hurt him or lead him astray. “Yes,” you think—when really, you should be rooting for William to be led as far astray as possible.
William just seems too hapless, too acted-upon, too much of a drip to care that much about. It’s one thing to present him as a sweet, music-loving kid whose innocence and good-heartedness will ultimately be rewarded as he negotiates a supposed nest of vipers. But he just seems clueless and dull, and lacking any of the basic skills to be even a mild-mannered journalist.
The legendary scribe Lester Bangs (Rob Colletti, excellently snarky) occasionally pops up on the side of the stage to remind the teenager to be a journalist; to not fall for the schmoozing, to actually ask some questions, to get the story. But William shows himself utterly incapable of doing so, over and over again. Indeed, his not getting the story because he just wants everyone to like him is played as low-key heroic and cute.
The anti-journalism fervor stirred by Donald Trump and his acolytes over the last few years is repeated and recycled endlessly in Almost Famous. William’s nickname from the band is “The Enemy.” It is said playfully, but meaningfully and with an edge. William doesn’t stand up for himself, doesn’t follow any of Bangs’ metaphorical shaking-by-the-collar to do his job, and falls in line to be a kind of passive bystander happy to be around the band.
Around this critic, the audience groaned in agreement when one character mentioned journalistic reporting as something to be suspicious of. Maybe fact-checking in magazines has changed since Crowe’s time—but one line where a Rolling Stone fact-checker supposedly accepts a flat denial of everything in a piece as a reason to nix it is laughable.
The band itself is also free of any rock ‘n’ roll charisma, and although they are meant to be in conflict—about the amount of stage and fame-time one member has over another—the acting is so cartoonish and the script so leaden it never flares into anything approaching real aggression or tension. Just like William, although physically older, the bandmates look like boys masquerading as men.
The same vibe of passionless dead weight attaches itself to the show’s attempted love triangle, between William, Russell, and the supposedly mysterious Penny Lane (Solea Pfeiffer). Penny Lane is supposed to be Almost Famous’ Nico—the ultimate, alluring rock muse and hanger-on. What is her real name? No one knows! How does she bewitch all who fall into her path? No one knows! How does she have such style, wit, and grace? No one knows!
In truth, Penny Lane feels like an offensively underwritten straight man’s masturbatory fantasy—passive, voiceless, a totem of sex appeal, and not much else. In the stage show, there is no enigma about her, she just kind of drifts about in dollar-store hippy garb. When her story is revealed at the very end, it doesn’t really change anything, or land with emphasis.
Almost Famous is one of those musicals where words and songs repeat themselves for about two and a half hours, and then, suddenly in the last 10 minutes, the production rouses itself from its own stupor for a big, welcome bang of a finale. “Where have you been until now?” you think as things finally click into gear. We cheer as William Miller has his first rock ‘n’ roll moment, leaping and head-banging across the stage to accept the inevitable standing ovation. Too bad this burst of life happens outside the story, and far too late to save the show.